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Hello, Columbus: L.A. Street Looks to a New York Circle

Times Staff Writer

Wedged between Lincoln Center and the theater district, Columbus Circle had long been known as an urban landmark inexplicably lacking the hustle and bustle of the rest of Manhattan.

But two years ago, developer Related Cos. opened the 55-story mega-complex known as Time Warner Center here -- and, largely as a result, the area has been transformed. The “mini-city” boasts some of New York’s most expensive restaurants as well as luxury condos, a five-star hotel, a Whole Foods Market and, soon, a museum -- all within a few blocks.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. June 25, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 25, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Columbus: A story in the June 19 A section about Columbus Circle in New York misspelled the name of a sushi master who runs a restaurant in the Time Warner Center. His name is Masa Takayama.

Related is now preparing to break ground on another mega-complex: the $1.8-billion, Frank Gehry-designed Grand Avenue project in downtown Los Angeles.

When people ask what Grand Avenue will look and feel like, the developers at Related often point to Columbus Circle. But a visit to Manhattan makes it clear that despite some similarities, replicating the upscale atmosphere and vibrant pedestrian life of Columbus Circle is going to be a challenge.

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The circle, though once sleepy, had a large, well-heeled residential population living nearby and is located within a quick walk of Central Park, Fifth Avenue’s shopping district and Broadway.

By contrast, Grand Avenue is on Bunker Hill, on the far north side of downtown. The area is home to Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Museum of Contemporary Art, but it is a long uphill walk from other local institutions, including the Central Library, Staples Center and the increasingly trendy South Park district.

Time Warner Center’s shops feed off a much denser array of offices and residential buildings than Grand Avenue’s shops would. In Columbus Circle, the upscale businesses are sustained both by residents who live nearby and workers at the center’s namesake company, media titan Time Warner. Though Grand Avenue will have some office space in its third phase, most of the high-rise units are set aside for hotel rooms, condos and low-income affordable housing.

Related has touted both developments for their village concept, including shopping, homes, businesses and even subway stops in one sprawling development.

But New York Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff is quick to point out the inherent difference in the two cities.

New York “is a walking city. It’s a mass transit city.... Creating these hubs of activity built around ease of access has been our time-honored formula for success,” he said.

“That’s obviously different from what you’ll find in Los Angeles.”

Architect Jeffrey Inaba, who teaches at both New York’s Columbia University and Los Angeles’ Southern California Institute of Architecture, says comparing the two projects underscores an inherent contradiction in L.A.'s effort to bring urban vitality to downtown.

Time Warner, he said, “is essentially suburban in its logic. The ironic thing would be that [Los Angeles], a city that is largely suburban, aspiring to have its first urban destination, would be copying an urban city that has a suburban destination.”

Still, Related officials remain convinced that Grand Avenue will see the same success as Time Warner Center.

They are banking on Grand Avenue essentially priming the pump in the area, drawing more developers to build office and residential towers nearby. Grand Avenue, as they see it, would become the hub of a much larger development boom.

“During the first six to 12 months [of construction], you announce the tenants, and that builds a level of excitement, and people suddenly become believers,” said Kenneth A. Himmel, president and chief executive of Related Urban Development. “What happens to the peripheral area is that anything with momentum, that is already going, accelerates, because of the quality and breadth and depth of the project.”

It remains to be seen how much development Grand Avenue will spark. But LA Live, the sports- and entertainment-focused mega-shopping center rising a few miles south near Staples Center, could either complement or compete with Grand Avenue. Though the developers argue that the projects will benefit each other, both must become retail destinations in a region that already has many, including the Grove, Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade and Hollywood & Highland.

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On a recent evening, a crowd of people waited out a thunderstorm in the cavernous lobby of Time Warner Center. A boy played at the base of a female Botero sculpture, one of a pair titled “Adam and Eve” who stand guard in front of the building’s central escalators.

Businessmen chatted via Blackberries. Out-of-towners, maps in hand, planned their next stops. Above, visible through the building’s two-story glass scrim, Columbus Circle, and Central Park beyond, were illuminated by lightning.

When it was built, Time Warner Center was not universally embraced. Some dismissed it as architecturally boring, far too big for the neighborhood and too much like a suburban shopping mall.

But the center has proved more successful than many envisioned.

The central shopping area, with its glass-and-steel elevated walkways, may look like a mall -- yet it has attracted super chef Thomas Keller and sushi master Masa Yakayama, who opened restaurants there. “Jazz at Lincoln Center,” led by Wynton Marsalis, moved into an airy concert space above.

The developers say that Time Warner reflects the traffic circle’s graceful arches.

They plan to play up the inside-outside relationship in Los Angeles as well, using landscaping to blur lines between urban and rural space. Laurie Olin, a landscape designer who redesigned Columbus Circle as part of the Related project, will try his hand at Grand Avenue. Early designs show rooftop pools, garden space and trees planted at angles hanging down from upper stories.

“That’s the key,” said Himmel, “to look up from Grand Avenue, or down from the buildings, and know you are not looking at a blank rooftop experience.”

Gehry’s plans for Grand Avenue’s first phase call for two bold, glass-sheathed L-shaped towers of 47 and 24 stories, at opposite ends of the block east of Disney Hall. Smaller pavilions will house restaurants, shops and art galleries.

Backers of the Grand Avenue project speak almost poetically in their comparisons between New York and Los Angeles. Eli Broad, chairman of the committee pushing the Grand Avenue project, said that Columbus Circle today is a model for what L.A.'s downtown district could become.

“What they have done there is really incredible,” said Broad, who keeps an apartment overlooking the circle. “They’ve given it light.”

Still, the comparison between a busy traffic circle in central Manhattan and a part of downtown long isolated from the rest of the city center -- with an 80-foot hill from one end to the other -- seems a bit of a stretch to some urbanists.

Inaba said Time Warner Center “is super-successful because you have the subway station there. You have people from all over ... who come to Whole Foods because they can do their grocery shopping there. In L.A., that would never happen. Grand Avenue would never have that kind of centrality.”

Grand Avenue has been the focus of civic plans for Bunker Hill over the last 50 years, with little success. In recent years, Broad and others have said that creating a development along Grand Avenue is key to transforming a district known for shutting down after dark into a 24/7 attraction.

Downtown Los Angeles today, said Himmel, represents “the most underserved retail market of any major American city” and can support a project on the scale of Grand Avenue. And Related’s work at Time Warner Center can serve as a guide.

“We have spent years perfecting the art of how you move people vertically,” he said.


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